Endorse Government Theft
June 25, 2005
The liberal/centrist faction of the US Supreme Court, headed by Justice John Paul Stevens, and including Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and Anthony Kennedy, has given liberalism in a bad name with the court’s latest 5-4 ruling approving of the theft of homes and stores in New London by city leaders anxious to give their land over to a developer who promises to build a toney riverfront complex.
Cities have long had the power of eminent domain to tear down allegedly "blighted" neighborhoods, evicting the residents, in order to replace them with trendier propertie--a process euphemistically called urban renewal. The process is inherently controversial and prone to corruption, as Justice Clarence Thomas noted in a dissent to the current court ruling, and is often little more than "minority removal." It has frequently left whole downtowns looking like bombed out areas. But at least up to now, a finding of blight or compelling public need, such as a highway route or a subway, had to be demonstrated before someone’s property could be snatched away from them at condemnation prices.
In their ruling (which could have been penned by Donald Trump), the Stevens majority decided that simply asserting the goal of economic development would provide adequate grounds for a government to legally drive people out of their homes.
As Justice Stevens wrote in his majority opinion in the case, "Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government," adding, "Clearly, there is no basis for exempting economic development from our traditionally broad understanding of public purpose."
That shameless bit of legal sophistry glosses over a huge chasm, however.
It's one thing to say that promoting economic development has long been an accepted function of government. Indeed, many would argue that it is one of the primary functions of government at any level. But how government goes about that is another question.
Converting the downtown of Philadelphia to greenhouses for growing opium poppies would produce far more revenue and "economic development" than the Center City office towers filled with lawyers and bankers currently produce, but I doubt that most Philadelphians would support such a plan. Likewise, tearing down 20-30 of the pretentious mansions in Philadelphia’s Main Line to put in a few big casinos would also produce more tax revenue for the city, but I don't see that happening either.
Yet Stevens moves right from this commonplace statement about the role of government to saying there is "no basis" for disputing that a simple assertion that a project will lead to "economic development" should empower government to rip the heart out of any functioning community it wants.
This is really just another way of saying if the majority of people in a community--or a well-connected developer--want to run roughshod over one part of that community, they have only to declare that they can find a way to make more money out of those people's property by evicting them, tearing down their homes, and building something else.
If this isn’t tyranny, I don’t know what is. If this isn’t an open invitation for powerful economic interests to buy their way into virtually any neighborhood they want, flatten it, and construct huge shopping malls, hotels and casinos, I don't know what is.
I happen to know the Ft. Trumble neighborhood in New London that is about to be razed, having grown up not too many miles away, and having studied at Connecticut College in New London.Far from being a blighted locale, it is rather a long-standing working-class community of houses and stores, some of them second-generation businesses.
What is about to happen to them, thanks to the Supreme Court’s majority, is legalized grand larceny.
I don't often find myself hailing the views of Clarence Thomas or Sandra Day O'Connor, but both were on the right side on this case, along with Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
As O'Connor wrote, "Who among us can say she already makes the most productive or attractive use of her property?" She added, "The specter of condemnation hangs over all property." O’Connor warned, "The government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more."
If this is what a liberal court does, maybe we need another conservative justice on the court.
8:50 am pdt